Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Mad Men: The Strategy

Was this the episode where Mad Men turned into Cheers? Here is the germ of Peggy's new strategy for Burger Chef. She and Don have been having a discussion about their failures to start a family and about how the family has, supposedly changed. Peggy blurts this out.
What if there was a place that you could go where there was no TV? And you could break bread. Anywhere you were sitting with was family. 
That's a test. If you are part of the cultural elite then you probably missed it. I'll get back to it.

The basic plot line was pretty simple: We have a bunch of people who, for various reasons, have closed the door on traditional family or who have had it closed for them. Pete is getting divorced. Don is divorced. Bob Benson is gay. And, you may want to sit down and swallow your coffee for this one, Joan and Peggy are getting old. (Hey, don't blame me, the show set it up that way.) They're all looking for something to replace that family and so they all settle down in a bar in Boston.

Not really but they may as well have. It's wrong, of course, to credit Cheers with this. It's the plot dynamic of all sorts of TV. Think of The Mary Tyler Moore Show or Friends: someone (usually a woman) has failed to get married for whatever reason and they find a substitute family with work or with friends or in some bar somewhere. This sort of group dynamic is a speciality of television but you find it in some movies, think of The Big Chill or any of Whit Stillman's films.

The dynamic tends to work a lot like family. You have difficult brothers and sisters (Pete and Peggy), creative ones (Peggy and Don), kids who resent that they're not the favourite (Pete and Don), matronly motherly types (Joan) and fatherly types (Roger, Bert and sometimes Don). You also have bullying types, scheming types and a whole raft of others in supporting roles too but there is always a core to the group.

And it occurs to me to wonder if the real theme of Mad Men all along hasn't been leaving family behind. I leave that vague because it could be that the theme is "leaving your family behind" in the sense of growing up and becoming an adult or it could be "leaving the family behind" in the sense of abandoning traditional family structures for some sort of new arrangement.

Reality check: people who go to the same bar every day in real life are losers and people who go to fast food restaurants all the time are obese and people who get their sense of purpose and meaning in life from work are pathetic. Which is to say, it's much easier to make something that feels like a replacement for the family you've left behind work in drama than it is real life.

The thing is, you leave your family and you feel a hole where family used to be. And this is perverse because you feel that hole even if your family life was nothing to regret having left behind. Even if you remember your childhood fondly, you make it play a bigger role in retrospect than it ever  did in real life.

Back to the skill testing question at the topic: the answer is that Peggy is a Catholic! The place you can go to where there is no TV and you can break bread and everywhere you sit is family is weekly mass. Don't believe me? The episode ends with Pete, Don and Peggy together on Sunday.

We're being offered a kind of religious solution. I say "kind of" because it isn't clear that anything really happens. Don and Peggy get up and dance to Sinatra's most embarrassing song.  Sinatra himself hated it but he was a consummate pro who didn't make himself the centre of everything and he sang it because the audience wanted it. That's ironic.

And there is a difference between your strategy for dealing with life and what actually happens. At this point, the penultimate show of the first half of the last season, we have a strategy.

Stray Bullets

  • Speaking of strategies, one of Matt Weiner's favourites is to handle the big, issues in the second last shot in order that the finale can be a dramatic joy ride. So far, he is running true to form.
  • Megan is packing her stuff and not just her summer clothes. When Don suggests that he can bring some of it for her when next he comes out she says, "I want to see you somewhere where there is nothing else going on." Is she having an affair? With Amy?
  • Flashing back on Megan 1: Four years ago I said, "... it is tempting to think that, "Faye Miller is playing a part and Megan appears to actually be the part". But I meant only that it is tempting to think and not that that is the case. Having just rewatched the episodes in question to prepare this post, it is pretty obvious that Megan is playing a role every bit as much as Faye." Which raises the obvious question: Is Megan Bob Benson in reverse?
  • Flashing back on Megan 2: In season 4, episode 4, there were some weird dynamics between Megan and Joyce.
  • They played two nice tricks on us this episode. The first was when the phone rang in the middle of the night and we thought it must be Don's phone only it was Bob's. Then we get virtually teh same scene only it's Peggy waking up in the middle of the night to work on something. Finally, we get Don waking up in the morning.
  • The other great trick was the false ending. Don and Peggy get up to dance to the Sinatra tune, the camera zooms out and the music shifts from a sound on the set to a sound from our speakers and we think it's over because the big pop song of the day always comes at the end. But there is four and half minutes left.
  • I used to think that the recap over at Slate was childish but, more charitably, I now think it's childlike. 
  • It's hard to place the time on this one but "My Way" hit the charts in June of 1969. June is the most popular month for weddings. 
  • The Lemon Girl and I were at a wedding last week. A young man at our table confessed that he has based his personality on Don Draper (I lean more to Roger Sterling myself). A number of the people at the table said they were disappointed with the show. I made the suggestion that I have often made here, that the 1960s were a cultural tragedy and that was why. The young man smiled and said, "That is what is so great about it: the culture is degrading and the show is going with it." I wish I'd said that. I'm going to try to cultivate his attitude.
  • Donald Barthleme: "Writing is a process of dealing with not knowing". This is a very meta show. Often the characters say something that appears to be about life but is actually about the challenges of writing. "Living with the not knowing," sounds like a profound existential statement when Don says it but but it's really the writers putting their own writing challenges into the mouth of one of the characters.

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